Tour guides beg for stipends from Sh500m tourism budget
Jobless Safari escorts begging for upkeep are asking the Ministry of Tourism, which has set aside Sh500 million to help the sector recover from the impact of coronavirus not to forget them.
Michael Muriithi has been in the tourism industry for the past 16 years. With the predictions from the Ministry of Tourism from last year that things will be looking up in 2020, Michael was expecting a great harvest.
“From May 12, I was heading to one of my favourite safari for 10 days. These were repeat clients from Netherlands.
Sadly they cancelled since they can’t fly in for visits to Aberdares, Baringo, Kakamega, Busia, the Mara and Nairobi,” he says.
Before corona virus hit, the tourism industry looked promising and many hotels were fully booked for the entire high season (June to September).
Even during the low season (March to May), some hotels and tour operators had been well booked.
Many tour guides also had bookings from local and regional sources (within east Africa).
During a good five-month high season, a tour guide could rake up to Sh400,000 in savings and gratuities. In normal low seasons, they could earn Sh100, 000 on average.
Currently, over 5,000 safari guides are jobless with zero income for the third month on a row.
The guides are hoping for cash stipends from the Ministry of Tourism following the announcement of a Sh500 million-stimulus package to the industry.
Post virus recovery
Last month, the government through the Ministry of Tourism has set aside Sh500 million to help the industry recover from the impact of coronavirus, even as the virus continues to deal painful blows to the sector.
Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala told stakeholders that part of the money will be used to restore confidence in Kenya as a preferred travel destination.
Speaking at a meeting convened early in March by the Ministry of Tourism to discuss the preparedness of the Government in relation to tourism, following the global Covid-19 crisis, Balala said the balance of the money would be used for the post Coronavirus recovery strategy in key source markets.
Cries Muriithi: “We are contracted workers and get assigned when tour operators have guests coming, so have no salaries, but are entitled to allowances.
Unfortunately, some tour operators have refused to pay the money due to guides for safaris taken before the first Covid-19 case was announced.
After that, operators started receiving cancellations and had to refund clients their deposits. Some are now unable to pay guides,” says Muriithi.
Nicholas Kiritu, Chairman of Kenya Tour Driver Guides Association (KTDGA) says the Sh500 million may not be enough to cover stimulus packages for the 1.6 people who work in the tourism sector, but guides are desperate too.
“The ministry, Kenya Tourism Board and stakeholders must plan to restart the sector from a new slate,” he says
Kiritu says it’s unfortunate that tourism was the first sector to be hit hard beginning as early as February when tourists started cancelling travel plans.
“Talks are underway and we hope that prayers we forwarded earlier get a good response,” he says.
For Chris Mwangi Kiangazi, a tour guide in one of the camps, the job is his only source of income. His prayer is that a solution is found soon so that his woes and those of his colleagues will be over.
“I have talked with colleagues from different firms and kila mtu analia (everyone is crying). Someone was asking for as low as Sh100 just to feed his children,” he says.
Mwangi was set to go on leave in May before the high season started in June and work would continue. He is now on forced leave and lucky that his employer is paying him half his salary.
Another tour guide, Michael Matu says the State doesn’t recognise them as ambassadors of the industry.
“So far, nothing has been done to alleviate our suffering. We are key when it comes to handling guests. I am at home with no source of income, or any means to earn a living,” he says.
For Matu, life before the pandemic was good as he took care of his family. He has even managed to buy a safari vehicle and recently took a loan to buy second one.
Beginning April, many guests who desired to explore the country had booked him.
All of these bookings were cancelled and he is keeping his fingers crossed that from July, things will be better. His main worry now is how he is going to pay the loan.
Some safari guides, especially freelance ones, supplement other tour firms by leasing their own tour vans to them.
For instance, Felix Migoya had invested heavily on a customised Toyota Land Cruiser in readiness for the 2020 tourist season. He is now left with bank loans to service.
“It takes Sh7 million to buy and convert a safari Land Cruiser to the standards required by the Tourism Regulatory Authority. You can imagine how much money we spent,” he cries.
Felix is pleading for bailouts for SME tour operators with turnover of up to Sh5million annually, as some clients are demanding 100 per cent refunds. “We also need renegotiated loan terms,” he says.
Loans are not their only worry. They have to renew several licenses; a three-year driver’s license costs Sh3,050, an National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) guide license Sh600 and Sh2,000 for a Ministry of Tourism permit. Also required is a certificate of good conduct at Sh1,050 plus a recommendation letter from a tour operator.
“We want to know what will come of our licenses, which might be useless for this year. We need a reprieve for one year.
Nothing is being done to address tourism sector workers. Most are at home with no pay. Depression ilitushika kitambo (got us a long time ago),” says Matu.
Kiritu is pleading with the government to suspend installation of new speed governors costing Sh20,000.
“We need a more subtle marketing strategies, not overreliance on international markets.
We also need contracts from Government ministries to at least keep working,” advises Felix.